When the pioneers permanently opened the St Lucie Inlet in 1892, it killed the freshwater grasses that filled the waterways creating a brackish estuary that due to the convergence of tropical and temperate zones, and the nearby warmth of the Gulf Stream, became “the most diverse estuary in North America.” (Gilmore)
After a short period of time, sportfishing thrived in the area, and fishing guides called Stuart the “fishing grounds of presidents” as US president, Grover Cleveland, vacationed and fished the area in 1900 and years after.
In spite of long standing issues with the health of the estuary, as late as the 1970/80s Dr Grant Gilmore of Harbor Branch documented over 800 species of fish living and breeding in the then healthy seagrasses around Sailfish and Sewall’s Point at the convergence of the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. This was a larger variety of species in one place than any other area in United States. (Gilmore)
“Goliath Grouper” called “Jew Fish” at the time, Stuart. ca. 1920s. (Thurlow Collection)
Going back to the the 1930s, the 1938 Blue Book, a popular annual fishing publication of the time, lauds fishing throughout the entire Stuart area:
“The City of Stuart located approximately 20 miles south of Fort Pierce is world renowned for its fishing. Located as it is…it offers a variety of fishing similar to Fort Pierce but somewhat more pronounced, particularly with regards to the tarpon, sea trout, snook, channel bass, bluefish, crevasse jack, pompano and ladyfish. It’s fresh water fishing is particularly good far into the back county among the Sloughs with their tributary and drainage canals to Lake Okeechobee and the many drainage canals through this territory. These Sloughs and Canals offer splendid fishing for black bass, as well as for the larger game fish from the salt water, such as th snook and tarpon, that make their way into Stuart Harbor and on up into the both and south branches of the St Lucie River. –Particularly good fishing for these species can be had at the St Lucie Locks about 12 miles inland south of Stuart…”
It is interesting to note that although the Blue Book piece, written in 1938, celebrates Stuart’s fishing, one can find evidence of tension regarding the releases from Lake Okeechobee in the literature of the day as early as 1925.
Fearing the onslaught of development in the booming twenties and the changes brought on by the connection and building of the C-44 canal from Lake Okeechobee to the South Fork of the St Lucie River, beginning in 1923, the South Florida Developer’s, November 10th, 1925 headline reads:
“Fish Will Leave the River As City Grows, Fisherman Assert, Sewage and Oil Sure Death to a Favored Sport is Verdict.”
The article quotes commercial fishermen who know that the over abundance of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee will chase away the salt water fish and that the oil on the water from development, perhaps from cars and road runoff, if excessive, won’t allow the fish to sufficiently breathe.
Fishing guide Phil O’Brian is quoted as saying: “I know the ways of the sea fish. They can’t stand fresh water; and they won’t stand sewer water. We have the fresh water now mixin’ in from Lake Okeechobee and we’ll soon have the sewer water.”
These pioneers are probably rolling over in their graves should they have learned about the story of the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon most recently.
The St Lucie River was labeled “impaired” by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2002 mostly due to pesticides and heavy metals from agriculture and urban pollution runoff accumulating in the sediment from all area canals, especially C-44 and Lake Okeechobee. In a way, just like the 1920s fisherman foresaw…
The fight against the area canals and Lake Okeechobee continues today, and if by the grace of God we can undo some of the hands of history, the St Lucie and Indian River Lagoon will surely heal herself and we once again could be the ” Fishing Grounds of Presidents…”
…but then we might have to get rid of that green and sprawling golf course at the Floridian.
FDEP Impairment St Lucie River: (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/southeast/ecosum/ecosums/SLE_Impairment_Narrative_ver_3.7.pdf)